The Download: spying keyboard software, and why boring AI is best

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This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How ubiquitous keyboard software puts hundreds of millions of Chinese users at risk

For millions of Chinese people, the first software they download onto devices is always the same: a keyboard app. Yet few of them are aware that it may make everything they type vulnerable to spying eyes

QWERTY keyboards are inefficient as many Chinese characters share the same latinized spelling. As a result, many switch to smart, localized keyboard apps to save time and frustration. Today, over 800 million Chinese people use third-party keyboard apps on their PCs, laptops, and mobile phones. 

But a recent report by the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto–affiliated research group, revealed that Sogou, one of the most popular Chinese keyboard apps, had a massive security loophole. Read the full story

—Zeyi Yang

Why we should all be rooting for boring AI

Earlier this month, the US Department of Defense announced it is setting up a Generative AI Task Force, aimed at “analyzing and integrating” AI tools such as large language models across the department. It hopes they could improve intelligence and operational planning. 

But those might not be the right use cases, writes our senior AI reporter Melissa Heikkila. Generative AI tools, such as language models, are glitchy and unpredictable, and they make things up. They also have massive security vulnerabilities, privacy problems, and deeply ingrained biases. 

Applying these technologies in high-stakes settings could lead to deadly accidents where it’s unclear who or what should be held responsible, or even why the problem occurred. The DoD’s best bet is to apply generative AI to more mundane things like Excel, email, or word processing. Read the full story

This story is from The Algorithm, Melissa’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The ice cores that will let us look 1.5 million years into the past

To better understand the role atmospheric carbon dioxide plays in Earth’s climate cycles, scientists have long turned to ice cores drilled in Antarctica, where snow layers accumulate and compact over hundreds of thousands of years, trapping samples of ancient air in a lattice of bubbles that serve as tiny time capsules. 

By analyzing those cores, scientists can connect greenhouse-gas concentrations with temperatures going back 800,000 years. Now, a new European-led initiative hopes to eventually retrieve the oldest core yet, dating back 1.5 million years. But that impressive feat is still only the first step. Once they’ve done that, they’ll have to figure out how they’re going to extract the air from the ice. Read the full story.

—Christian Elliott

This story is from the latest edition of our print magazine, set to go live tomorrow. Subscribe today for as low as $8/month to ensure you receive full access to the new Ethics issue and in-depth stories on experimental drugs, AI assisted warfare, microfinance, and more.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 How AI got dragged into the culture wars
Fears about ‘woke’ AI fundamentally misunderstand how it works. Yet they’re gaining traction. (The Guardian
+ Why it’s impossible to build an unbiased AI language model. (MIT Technology Review)
 
2 Researchers are racing to understand a new coronavirus variant 
It’s unlikely to be cause for concern, but it shows this virus still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. (Nature)
Covid hasn’t entirely gone away—here’s where we stand. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Why we can’t afford to stop monitoring it. (Ars Technica)
 
3 How Hilary became such a monster storm
Much of it is down to unusually hot sea surface temperatures. (Wired $)
+ The era of simultaneous climate disasters is here to stay. (Axios)
People are donning cooling vests so they can work through the heat. (Wired $)
 
4 Brain privacy is set to become important 
Scientists are getting better at decoding our brain data. It’s surely only a matter of time before others want a peek. (The Atlantic $)
How your brain data could be used against you. (MIT Technology Review)
 
5 How Nvidia built such a big competitive advantage in AI chips
Today it accounts for 70% of all AI chip sales—and an even greater share for training generative models. (NYT $)
The chips it’s selling to China are less effective due to US export controls. (Ars Technica)
+ These simple design rules could turn the chip industry on its head. (MIT Technology Review)
 
6 Inside the complex world of dissociative identity disorder on TikTok 
Reducing stigma is great, but doctors fear people are self-diagnosing or even imitating the disorder. (The Verge)
 
7 What TikTok might have to give up to keep operating in the US
This shows just how hollow the authorities’ purported data-collection concerns really are. (Forbes)
 
8 Soldiers in Ukraine are playing World of Tanks on their phones
It’s eerily similar to the war they are themselves fighting, but they say it helps them to dissociate from the horror. (NYT $)
 
9 Conspiracy theorists are sharing mad ideas on what causes wildfires
But it’s all just a convoluted way to try to avoid having to tackle climate change. (Slate $)
 
10 Christie’s accidentally leaked the location of tons of valuable art ????????
Seemingly thanks to the metadata that often automatically attaches to smartphone photos. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“Is it going to take people dying for something to move forward?”

—An anonymous air traffic controller warns that staffing shortages in their industry, plus other factors, are starting to threaten passenger safety, the New York Times reports.

The big story

Inside effective altruism, where the far future counts a lot more than the present

" "

VICTOR KERLOW

October 2022

Since its birth in the late 2000s, effective altruism has aimed to answer the question “How can those with means have the most impact on the world in a quantifiable way?”—and supplied methods for calculating the answer.

It’s no surprise that effective altruisms’ ideas have long faced criticism for reflecting white Western saviorism, alongside an avoidance of structural problems in favor of abstract math. And as believers pour even greater amounts of money into the movement’s increasingly sci-fi ideals, such charges are only intensifying. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Watch Andrew Scott’s electrifying reading of the 1965 commencement address ‘Choose One of Five’ by Edith Sampson.
+ Here’s how Metallica makes sure its live performances ROCK. ($)
+ Cannot deal with this utterly ludicrous wooden vehicle
+ Learn about a weird and wonderful new instrument called a harpejji.



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